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Blessed are the Peacemakers: Forgiveness in Politics as a Road to Peace

By William Bole

January 9, 2006

On January 9, 2006, Woodstock fellow William Bole gave a talk titled "Blessed are the Peacemakers: Forgiveness in Politics as a Road to Peace," as part of the Year of Prayer lecture series sponsored by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus and held at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore. Bole drew from Woodstock's 2004 book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), which he co-authored with Robert Hennemeyer and Drew Christiansen, S.J. Here is a text of his remarks.


Very often, when you give a talk about a book you've worked on, you have to take a few steps back and sort of rewind your mind. It's been three years since we let go of the manuscript of this book (Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace) -- Bob Hennemeyer, Drew Christiansen, and I. And since then, I've wandered into other topics, like Catholic social teaching and the environment. But in a sense, I haven't wandered very far. I have found that forgiveness and peacemaking lurk behind many questions today -- like the environment. For one thing, we hear that future wars are more likely to be about water than about oil. If that's true, then co-existence with other humans has quite a lot to do with our co-existence with the natural world. It's about healing our relationships with all of God's Creation.

George Bernard Shaw said, "The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing." At Woodstock, we took a different tack. We tried to understand a few things about the inter-group conflicts of today. More to the point, we brought together diplomats, experts in conflict resolution, and others, and we invited them to reflect on their experiences in the trenches. That was before I entered the picture; that was the work of former Woodstock director Jim Connor and others. And that's part and parcel of the whole methodology that continues to drive Woodstock's reflections on other concerns, such as economic globalization.

We reached a rough consensus -- that there is a politics of forgiveness. There's a politics of forgiveness that can contribute to social healing and international conflict resolution. But I don't think anyone ever lost sight of the politics in all this. And I heard faint echoes of John F. Kennedy telling his staff: "Forgive your enemies, but don't forget their names."

I'd like to make a few basic points in these remarks here. The first is that, admittedly, the whole notion of forgiveness can seem counter-intuitive in the age of global terrorism and extreme ethnic conflict. It's an unlikely topic, but it's real - and that's the second point. Forgiveness has shown itself to be a political reality, and we think a strategically useful concept -- useful in helping to repair relationships that have been long sundered in a number of fractious societies. And, my third point is that forgiveness in politics is in politics, which means that it's subject to the limitations and liabilities of any political project. And I'll close with some fleeting remarks about why forgiveness is a fitting framework for dealing with some of today's most intractable conflicts, entangled as they are in the intangibles of group identity.

My first point: As a theme of international politics, forgiveness is unlikely, untimely (in some ways), and usually unheralded when it happens. That much, you don't need a think tank project to figure out.

I was sitting at my computer and working on the manuscript of this book when I heard something about a plane crashing at the World Trade Center. At another point in the drafting, I spoke to our family physician, an illustrious local doctor named Susan Black, who had just gotten back from Kosovo, where she spent three months as a volunteer, helping to set up medical clinics. On one of the last of those rounds, her translator, whose name was Faza, and with whom she had been traveling all that time, pulled out a gun and shot the surgeon, dead. As it turns out, they had been next-door neighbors. The surgeon, who was a Serb, had turned in the translator and his family, who were ethnic Albanians, and probably political activists. Faza's family went into hiding, and the surgeon looted their house. That day in the clinic, the surgeon was wearing one of Faza's shirts. Dr. Black, who has since retired, told me (referring to the conflicting ethnic groups), "They will never live together." We used her account in the book because it so starkly illustrates the cycles of revenge, the forces of un-forgiveness.

Maybe it's all about the "hothead factor." And here I'm referring to a term used by the clinical psychologist Everett L. Worthington. In short, the hotheads are the ones who try to keep people apart by committing violent and hateful acts. The hotheads shall always be with you, but so shall the cool heads and the passionate promoters of peace.

The question is: Who prevails -- the hotheads or the cool heads? And, to give a sense of the obstacles here, Worthington borrows a page from family psychology and in particular marital research. Those studies have found that it takes, on average, five or six "positive events" to make up for a single negative event in a marriage. I think we all know what those are. And that's in a normally healthy marriage. In a troubled marriage, the ratio is more like 10 to one or even higher. That's the number of positive events it takes to reverse the tide of the negative.

That throws a little sober light on what it takes to overcome these forces of unforgiveness, the memories of offense, the sense of victimization, which become ideologies and mythologies that propel the cycle of revenge.

The good news is that it happens - forgiveness happens in the wide, wide world. And that's my second point.

The most celebrated example is South Africa. A brutal, white minority regime fell, and black South Africans rose to power. Practically everyone assumed that blacks would do unto whites as whites had done unto them. They didn't, as a group. Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president, appointed a truth commission, instead. And through that commission, South Africa formally abstained from revenge. Mandela had also made his white jailer - the guy who kept the keys during many of his 27 years as a political prisoner - he made that guy an honored guest at his presidential inauguration in 1994.

In South Korea, at his own president inauguration, Kim Dae Jung stood beside several ex-autocrats who had once been more than happy to provide him with free lodging on death row. Kim is a Catholic who has spoken movingly of how he experienced Christ's love and forgiveness while awaiting execution for his human-rights activism. On that day of triumph in 1988, Kim proclaimed that the "politics of retaliation" is over. And it was.

In Cambodia, Buddhist primate Moha Ghosananda has struggled to release people from a paralyzing past by envisioning a future of forgiveness. He calls for selectively forgiving Khmer Rouge leaders who have repented and renounced violence after perpetrating that nation's unspeakable genocide. But Cambodians need more time.

Recently we've seen the politics of forgiveness at work in East Timor, the most densely Catholic country in Asia, which is seeking a process of reconciliation with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. We've seen the politics of forgiveness at work dramatically in Northern Ireland, where even the IRA has formally apologized for some of its past misdeeds, and in the Balkans, and other places.

What you'll often find in these and other examples is a search for truth, and a desire for public acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Sometimes all you'll find is a decision to not to seek retribution, to not settle the score. That counts. That's all part of the politics of forgiveness, according to the approach that we took, based on the seminal work of our friend, the Christian ethicist Donald W. Shriver, Jr., author of An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics. Signs and gestures of empathy - an expression of the commitment to eventually reconcile - those are also part of forgiveness in politics. Moral truth, forbearance, empathy, and the will to reconcile -- ultimately, these four elements of forgiveness are all about self-transcendence, communal self-transcendence, about transcending group bias, going beyond our mythological histories and twisted perceptions of reality.

Forgiveness is real, and the theme has been working its way into practical programs of international conflict resolution. Truth and reconciliation commissions, which are usually quasi-official entities, are one initiative of political forgiveness. They represent the idea that forgiveness, contrary to popular wisdom, is not about forgetting; it's about remembering in a certain way, as the South Africans chose to do in setting up their commission. At one time, people who work in conflict resolution argued that you shouldn't go there. You shouldn't bring attention to past atrocities. It'll just worsen the wounds; you should leave all that in the past. But at that time, they were not half as wise as William Faulkner, who once wrote, "The past isn't dead and gone; it isn't even past."

Small-group reconciliation - that's another kind of initiative. We have case studies from the former Yugoslavia, where third-party intermediaries have held ongoing workshops bringing together members of opposing groups - for example, Serbs and Croats, or Serbs and ethnic Albanians. These dialogues have usually been conducted with the help of local religious groups and interfaith associations. And facilitators have found that the hardest step is actually not forgiveness per se, which comes at the end of the dialogue process, and is often anticlimactic. It's acknowledgment - acknowledging an atrocity committed by your group against the other.

I think one benefit of the Shriver/Woodstock approach is that it helps you see forgiveness as a process, a social process, not as an isolated act between two consenting individuals. And it also helps you see how the process can break down or stall at the starting gate. In El Salvador, the Jesuit community called for a process of forgiving those responsible for assassinating the six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, at the University of Central America. But there were conditions: the perpetrators had to acknowledge their crimes and repent in some way. That's the element of moral truth. It didn't happen. The official reconciliation process there wasn't structured in a way to make it happen.

There are lessons, and we have these lessons because forgiveness now has a track record in international politics. Here are a few that we culled from the experiences of those who have tried to make it work.

  • The importance of a serious effort to establish historical truth and disseminate it widely in society cannot be underestimated. That's the experience of truth commissions.
  • Political forgiveness should not be confused with general amnesty. And it has been confused with amnesty in places like El Salvador and Chile. It was not confused in South Africa, where amnesty was conditioned upon truth-telling by the perpetrators and human-rights abusers. And we did learn the grisly truth in those hearings held by the truth commission, which was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
  • Victims of political crimes should never feel pressured to forgive. That kind of pressure can, in a sense, re-victimize those who have already suffered.
  • Generally speaking, leaders can seek or extend forgiveness on behalf of their constituencies. They can do so by engaging in a process that may include acknowledgment of historical wrongdoing or symbolic deeds that signal hope of reconciliation. That was one of the contentious debates in Northern Ireland. Who shall forgive? Who shall repent? We sided with Shriver in saying there is a word for someone who extends such gestures on behalf of a political community - that someone is called "a leader." But we also felt that, while engaging in a broad process of social forgiveness, leaders should not presume to forgive a particular offender for a specific misdeed committed against another person. That is for the sufferer to decide.
  • One can forgive but also seek to punish for the sake of society, as long as punishment derives from a sense of justice, not from revenge. Forgiveness and punishment are not mutually exclusive. Here I think of the political philosopher and German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, who said, "Man cannot forgive what man cannot punish."

Another lesson has to do with my third point about remembering the limits of forgiveness in politics.

Not every act of forgiveness will be efficacious. There will ambiguities, miscalculations, unintended consequences, as John Langan, S.J., emphasized during our conversations. For example, you could be so bent on forgiving that you forget about justice. Some people say that's what happened in South Africa, which granted amnesty in exchange for truth. I don't agree. Some people say that's what's happening now in East Timor, which has barely begun the prosecutions for human-right atrocities. And there may be some truth to that.

So forgiveness in politics is, as I said earlier, in politics. I'd say, in but not of politics. And that's an asset, because politics as usual, conventional statecraft, realpolitik, whatever you want to call it - the so-called "realists" have been swinging and missing quite a lot over the past decade or so. In a sense, they've been fighting the last diplomatic war - the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, which was often driven by material interests, such as power and resources, which diplomats know well. In the post-Cold War era, what we've found is that the most intractable conflicts are rooted not in political ideologies and palpable interests, but in ethnicity, religion, and other intangibles of communal identity. We've learned much about this from Douglas Johnston, who, at 27 years old, was the youngest-ever commander of a nuclear submarine, and is now a practitioner of conflict resolution who played an important part in our investigations. He says these sources of conflicts, the identity-based conflicts, are the ones that conventional diplomacy is least suited to deal with.

In other words, something more is needed. Johnston said during one of the Woodstock dialogues, "Certainly no diplomatic or military solution will ever break the cycle of revenge. Unless one can introduce a spiritual component that gets to the business of forgiveness and reconciliation, the same drumbeat is likely to repeat itself for the next few centuries."

And so, what we've learned most of all is that in many places, a durable peace requires more than political accords and ceasefires. It requires social healing, which may come only through the introduction of a radical new factor, such as forgiveness.

I think more than any leader, Pope John Paul II understood the forgiveness factor in the world today. He dedicated his 2002 World Day of Peace message to the forgiveness theme, and he wrote, "The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness." I think the title of that message could serve as a distinct rallying cry for us today -- "No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness."